(ELV always enjoys looking at Tinkertoys when he dines)
Italian Food and Julian Serrano Deserve a Better Decor
Julian Serrano may not be a Las Vegas native, but after seventeen years here, we pretty much claim him as our own, since he is, by far, our best and most successful local chef. His Picasso continues to dazzle as much as it did on opening night in 1998, and his namesake restaurant – Julian Serrano in the Aria Hotel – brings forth the flavors of his homeland, and shows his range as a chef and restaurateur. It certainly qualifies as one of the best Spanish restaurants in America, and can go toe to toe with Jaleo down the street for the best traditional or modern tapas in town. Serrano – unlike many lesser chefs and most famous ones – is a constant presence in both restaurants, and he toggles between them every night they’re open, checking on the kitchen and guests without breaking a sweat.
With the opening of Lago by Julian Serrano, the crafty Spaniard has decided to leave Spanish and high-toned French-Mediterranean cooking behind to bring forth….wait for it…. Italian tapas! Not the cicchetti of Venice or the antipasti of a typical Italian meal, but rather, a best hits menu of new and old Italian, done family-style, in a modernist, cutting-edge setting, that tries simultaneously to please the purists and appeal to the party-as-a-verb crowd.
Whether you like the room or not will pretty much depend on your age. The décor is as far away from Circo (in whose spot it sits at the Bellagio) as the Jersey Shore is from the Amalfi Coast. “Cutting edge” is the kindest way to describe the overbright, overwhite, aggressively casual-chic décor, although “cruise ship moderne” and “all-night drug store waiting room” may impolitely creep into your assessment if you’re not feeling charitable.
If all that illuminated whiteness interferes with the enjoyment of your meal, take solace (?) in knowing that restaurants these days are not built with an eye towards maximizing enjoyment of food. The rather quaint notion — that upscale eateries are there to sooth your fevered brow and quell your appetite — is so 2005. In the dystopian restaurant universe of 2015, it’s far better to catch the eye than provoke the thought. Gastronomic bliss takes a back seat to building a buzz these days, and Vegas’s best restaurants, with a few exceptions, are as much about feeding (and feeding off of) the nightclubs as they are about what they are actually feeding you. Thus does Lago perfectly fit the zeitgeist of our current age — built to grab your attention, cause a stir, and capture those clubbers, coming and going as it were.
This is not to say that one cannot dine well here. Rather, only that the food, good as it is, plays second billing to the scene. Whether you’re tying one on or not, the small pizzettes are a good way to start. Unlike the focaccine (small focaccia) their crusts are thin and crackly – designed to highlight the cheeses – smoked provolone, house-made mozz, bufala ricotta – not overwhelm them with bread. Just as satisfying are the toasted crostini, of which the ‘nudja (a fine, almost pureed spread of spicy pork sausage and gorgonzola) and the chicken liver with capers and pepperoncino will get your salivary juices properly flowing. The kitchen also has a fine way with vegetables, whether your tastes run to garlic and rosemary roasted potatoes, or a sweet and sour caponata of eggplant and onions.
Everyone seems to get good fish in Vegas these days (thank you Fed Ex), and Serrano’s pesce – be it in crudo (raw) form or a baked whole orata (sea bream):
…..is as good as you’ll find this far from a body of salt water. There’s no faulting them, or most of the pastas (although the veggie “ragu” with the pappardelle really doesn’t bring much to the party), but the true standouts are the risottos: alla trippa e funghi (tripe and ‘shrooms) or with red wine and burrata. Both are done al dente and somewhat firm (as opposed to soupy), and both are so vivid with their primary flavors you will forget, for a moment, that you’re in an American restaurant, run by a Spanish chef, that looks like Caribbean cruise ship.
If you peer into the open kitchen, you’ll see the reason why these risottos, and most of the pastas, sing as they do: Serrano had the good sense to employ Nico Chessa as his chef de cuisine. Chessa is a veteran of Piero Selvaggio’s Valentino group, and he delivers solid renditions of osso buco, veal piccata and grilled lamb chops scottadito, as well as a potato gnocchi with lobster knuckles that will have you fighting for the last bite. About the only dish with which I could fault was the vitello tonnato (chilled, thin slices veal with tuna caper dressing), only because there was not enough sauce.
Of course, there is never enough sauce for me. I can never get enough of a great sauce, unlike the décor here, of which you will quickly get too much.
(The prosecution rests)
Small plates of pizzas, soups, salads, fish, meat and pastas are priced between $10-$20; Main courses run from $28-$60. Each of ELV’s two meals here have been comped.
LAGO BY JULIAN SERRANO
In the Bellagio Hotel and Casino
3600 Las Vegas Boulevard South
Las Vegas, NV 89109